Even though it was more than 40 years ago, Gracie Bonds Staples still remembers her Phi Theta Kappa induction. She was at Southwest Junior College (now Southwest Mississippi Community College) in small Summit, Mississippi.
She was the first African American to be inducted into that chapter. Standing in the receiving line after the ceremony, a man asked her, “How did you get into this?”
“I smiled then as I smile now remembering him,” she wrote in her column, “Why I Needed to Write About Race and Religion,” for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as she kicked off a new five-part series.
Gracie has worked at newspapers across the country in her 40-year journalism career, earning numerous awards and accolades along the way. She has a twice-weekly lifestyle column called “This Life with Gracie,” in which she writes about a wide range of high-impact topics. Throughout much of her career and even today, her life has inspired most of her writing.
“I suffered some pretty painful indignities all along, but I didn’t dwell on those things,” she said. “I tried to remember the people that came into my life that were encouraging to me.”
Gracie grew up in McComb, Mississippi, at a time when bombings in the African American community were so frequent that, in the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964, McComb was named the “Bomb Capital of the world.” She was the sixth of 10 children, and neither of her parents had more than a sixth grade education.
Her mother and grandmother were maids; she and her siblings wore hand-me-downs from the white families for whom they worked. Her father hauled pulpwood. At times, they didn’t have food to eat. It was hard, but Gracie found comfort in writing her feelings down.
Gracie was 15 when her mom died of a massive heart attack. She was 21 when her dad died of esophageal and lung cancer. Still, Gracie became the second one in her family to graduate high school and the first to go to college.
“I didn’t (expect to leave McComb), but I feel that God put people in my life that helped steer me into the career I chose,” she said. “After integration, I had a white teacher named Mrs. Turnage, and she told me I had a talent for writing.”
Gracie enrolled at Southwest in 1975 with no real idea of what she wanted to do or be. For the most part, she had some great teachers; a few, though, were difficult.
“I had an English teacher, she marked up all my papers, they would be just covered in red ink,” she said. “All the African American kids’ papers were the same way. I got F’s on everything.
“All the others dropped out, but I refused, and I ended up getting a B in her class. Now, I don’t know how you go from getting F’s on everything to ending up with a B. I think I gained her respect.”
One teacher in particular, Mrs. Craig, encouraged Gracie to take journalism classes. She liked meeting people and learning new things, and she loved writing. She just kept telling herself, “I can do this.”
“I think I was meant to be a writer,” she said. “With journalism, you can really make a difference in people’s lives.”
Gracie transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi. Before she’d even graduated, the editor of her hometown newspaper invited her to come interview and held a job for her. She covered all manner of small-town news before moving to the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Mississippi, as a court reporter.
While there, she read about the National Association of Black Journalists’ upcoming conference in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, so she drove up. The organization helped get her name and resume out there.
Gracie’s next move was to The Raleigh Times in North Carolina as a general assignment reporter. She interviewed at the Chicago Sun Times but wasn’t hired; however, the editor there moved to The Sacramento Bee and remembered her. She was called for an interview, hired, and moved to California.
“Every time I interviewed for a job, I got the job,” she said. “The challenge has been once I got into the newsroom — getting recognized and respected for what I bring to the table. That’s been the challenge.”
After nine years, Gracie moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, again as a general assignment reporter. One day, in the early 1990s, the newspaper’s editors approached her about writing a special column. They had asked a local minister to write about the rash of church burnings and bombings in Mississippi’s African American communities, but he hadn’t come through.
Having grown up in Mississippi, Gracie had experienced church bombings firsthand. She wrote the column and, as a result, became a regular lifestyle columnist, writing two columns each week.
Her final move was to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Georgia in 2000, where she began as a health writer. A new features editor knew about her column in Fort Worth, and together they created the “Real Living” column. She has now been writing her “This Life with Gracie” column for about four or five years.
“I still write news features occasionally,” she said. “And I do tackle some heavy issues in the column.”
Gracie is proud of many stories she’s written. One of her first in Atlanta was about a couple having a new baby following the death of their infant conjoined twins. She covered the wedding of a woman with Down syndrome, and her most recent series on race and religion also stands out in her mind.
In 2018, her series on HIV and AIDS in black gay men in Atlanta earned her a GLADD Media Award alongside honorees such as Jay-Z, Ava DuVernay, and Samira Wiley. She received the Phillip Rush Community Builder Award from Georgia Equality the same year.
“In all my stories, I’ve tried to show we’re all the same,” she said. “We all want the same thing; we all want to be treated with dignity and respect.”